Annals of shirtlessness: French neo-Classicism

From Rebecca Wheeler at the Musée D’Orsay in Paris, this gigantic neo-Classical painting by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905):

(#1) Dante et Virgile (en enfers) / La Barque de Dante (1850)

Nasty, brutish, and naked.

From Wikipedia:

Dante and Virgil is a 1850 [neo-Classical] oil on canvas painting [281 cm × 225 cm (111 in × 89 in)] by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. It is presently on display at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. The painting depicts Dante and Virgil [in the Divine Comedy] looking on as two damned souls are entwined in combat. One of the souls is an alchemist and heretic named Capocchio. In this depiction Capocchio is being bitten on the neck by Gianni Schicchi, who had used fraud to claim another man’s inheritance.

On the painter — who I sometimes think of as M. Voyelles (because his family name is spelled with 10 letters, the consonant letters B G R plus 7 vowel letters) — from Wikipedia:

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (November 30, 1825 – August 19, 1905) was a French academic painter. In his realistic genre paintings he used mythological themes, making modern interpretations of classical subjects, with an emphasis on the female human body. During his life he enjoyed significant popularity in France and the United States, was given numerous official honors, and received top prices for his work. As the quintessential salon painter of his generation, he was reviled by the Impressionist avant-garde. By the early twentieth century, Bouguereau and his art fell out of favor with the public, due in part to changing tastes. In the 1980s, a revival of interest in figure painting led to a rediscovery of Bouguereau and his work.

On this blog, in a posting from 9/16/13, “Sheepish notes”, #1 is a more typical Bouguereau painting, of a shepherdess. Male figures are not especially prominent in his paintings, in which (as in life) he lavished his attentions lovingly on female bodies (notable example to come below), so Dante et Virgile is notable in its subject matter. (Rebecca wrote that she seems to send me nothing but pictures of shirtless men; well, she knows my tastes.)

She also sent along another painting from the Musée D’Orsay:

(#2) Égalité devant la mort (Equality Before Death), 1848

Equality is Bouguereau’s first major painting, produced after two years at the École des Beaux-Arts de Paris at the age of 23.

Now consider (also in the Musée D’Orsay):

(#3) La Naissance de Vénus (1879)

From Wikipedia:

The Birth of Venus is one of the most famous paintings by 19th-century painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau. It depicts not the actual birth of Venus from the sea, but her transportation in a shell as a fully mature woman from the sea to Paphos in Cyprus. She is considered the epitome of the Classical Greek and Roman ideal of the female form and beauty, on par with Venus de Milo.

For Bouguereau, it is considered a tour de force. The canvas stands at just over 9 ft 10 in (3.00 m) high, and 7 ft 2 in (2.18 m) wide. The subject matter, as well as the composition, resembles a previous rendition of this subject, Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, as well as Raphael’s The Triumph of Galatea.

… At the center of the painting, Venus stands nude on a scallop shell being pulled by a dolphin, one of her symbols. Fifteen putti, including Cupid and Psyche, and several nymphs and centaurs have gathered to witness Venus’ arrival. Most of the figures are gazing at her, and two of the centaurs are blowing into conch and Triton shells, signaling her arrival.

Venus is considered to be the embodiment of feminine beauty and form, and these traits are shown in the painting. Her head is tilted to one side, and her facial expression reflects that she is calm and comfortable with her nudity. She raises her arms, arranging her thigh-length, brown hair, swaying elegantly in an “S” curve contrapposto, emphasizing the curves of her body.

There are three male figures in the painting, the hairy animal-men centaurs, contrasting notably with the luscious goddess, nymphs, and cherubs.


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